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Survival of the fittest

Look to Europe for possible answers as resorts face dwindling skiers amid climate change

Just like Franz Wilhelmsen, who was passionate about Whistler and hiked the mountain on weekends in the early 1960s, Swiss industrialist Johann Heinrich was infatuated by the crisp, clean mountain air of the Engadin valley region in the eastern Swiss Alps when he trekked through in 1834. And the appeal of the mountains gained momentum in 1865 when doctors in England and Germany sent their tuberculosis patients to the Alps. It was these patients who returned as tourists and, along the way, farmers, tradesmen and hoteliers found ways to meet the needs of these new guests as they teamed up with the locals to make the tourists' time in the mountains as entertaining as possible.

Now with an estimated 6,000 designated ski areas in the world offering six million commercial beds, European ski resorts dominate the industry. Based on the 2016 International Report on Snow and Mountain Tourism, which provides a worldwide overview of key industry figures, 35 per cent of all ski resorts are located in the Alps and 21 per cent in North America.

Of the distribution of major ski resorts in the world — a major resort identified as having more than one million skier visits per season — 84 per cent are in the Alps and 14 per cent are in North America. Only Austria and France have more than 10 resorts each that generate more than one million skier visits per season. The U.S., Japan, France and Italy have more than 200 ski resorts each. Canada has fewer than 100 resorts. Over a five-year average the U.S. has the highest total skier visits with more than 50 million. France is close behind, and then comes Austria. Canada has fewer than 20 million skier visits in a five-year period. Based on the average annual skier visits during the last few winter seasons, La Plagne in the French Alps is No. 1, Whistler Blackcomb ranks No. 6 and Vail No. 9. These figures might indicate that resorts are doing well but the truth is that in Europe and North America, skiing is on the decline.

Climate change is one reason. The expansion of ski resorts in China and other parts of Europe is another. What will expansion and climate change mean for Whistler? Perhaps the answer lies in what's happening to ski resorts in Europe and Switzerland specifically.

Swiss made

In Switzerland, ski resorts developed organically when tourists discovered the delights of the alpine summer. It was the first ascent of the Matterhorn by British climber, Edward Whymper and his team in 1865 that drew tourism to Zermatt. For years visitors travelled to this high-altitude village on foot or by mule. By 1898 two railways served the village but both were open only in summer. It wasn't until 1927-28 when hotel baron Herrmann Seiler opened the Victoria Hotel that Zermatt had its first winter season with 180 Britons arriving for New Year's Eve. The first ski lift was built in 1942 and within two years, Zermatt had more guests in winter than summer.         

From the beginning, locals in Zermatt wanted to develop a winter sports infrastructure independently. Local farmer Severin Julen and his sons exemplified this and, rather than accept money from a foreign investor, they scraped together every last penny and completed their own single-seat chairlift in 1957 above Zermatt from the hamlet of Findeln to Sunnegga.

Skiing became big business, but the Swiss never forgot their roots. Tourism was pushed to 3,900 metres in 1969 when Zermatt applied for a licence to run an aerial cableway at the Klein Matterhorn. This would be the highest cableway in the Alps and a gateway to year-round skiing. An objection to the project was rejected in 1973 when politicians still favoured business over environmental concerns. The cableway commenced operation in 1979 and remains a heritage site today.

Railways were always indispensible for getting visitors to Zermatt. People parked their cars five kilometres away in the village of Tasch and caught the train for the rest of the journey. Even if cars were needed there wasn't any room for them. The lanes are too narrow in Zermatt. The upside is that there was more room for buildings. Most of the available space has been exploited but older buildings and barns were protected as heritage sites as early as the 1970s.

From the 1970s through the 1990s there was a strong focus on the winter season in Switzerland. In the last 10 to 15 years though, the focus has been on the summer season — and climate change is a big factor. As Mediterranean beaches get hotter and busier, families that usually took summer vacations in France or Italy now are staying in Switzerland's cooler alpine. Summer activities involve nature parks, summer tobogganing, hiking and cliff walking. There are also trails where people can view retreating glaciers to witness the effects of climate change

"Every ski resort in Switzerland is also a summer resort," says Alex Herrmann, Director of North America Switzerland Tourism.     

How to remain competitive

The last major attempt by an outside investor to get a foothold in the Zermatt tourist boom was in 2001 when a French ski-resort operator tried to acquire shares in four main cableway companies. This triggered the residents' deeply rooted reflex against foreign ownership. Business owners put aside differences, merged their companies, bought out smaller operators and launched a major upgrade program, which may prove to be the iron-clad measure in protecting Swiss ski resorts in the years to come.  

"Many of the mountain railways and local transportation companies are fully or partly owned by the community or local town or village," Herrmann explains. "So it's much harder for international investors to get a foothold."

Keeping foreign investors at bay has come at the expense of development in some small ski resorts. But there's also something else going on.

"Some of the small resorts have stopped operation in the lower lying areas of Switzerland where it's harder to guarantee a full winter season," Herrmann adds.   

To combat the consequences of climate change and to remain competitive, Swiss ski resorts are joining forces. In a project that began in 2013, the two existing ski areas of Arosa and Lenzerheide in eastern Switzerland were connected by a gondola, creating 225 kilometres of ski runs.

"Very similar to Whistler," Herrmann says. "Now they are one of the biggest ski resorts in the Alps."

Like Whistler, ski villages in Switzerland are all about tourism. Switzerland and its spectacular mountains: the Piz Bernina, the highest mountain in the eastern Alps; the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau in the Bernese Alps; and, of course, the iconic Matterhorn are all outstanding attractions, but Swiss ski resorts are struggling. In recent years the number of skiers has spiraled downward because the sport is affordable to increasingly few. As well, traditional Swiss ski-school camps are shutting down as skiing stands little chance against football among second-generation immigrants with southern European roots. Immigration is a much more pressing issue in Switzerland than it will likely ever be in Whistler. High rents in Zermatt and the lack of accommodation has forced workers to look to villages such as Tasch to live and where Portuguese workers outnumber Swiss workers by 80 per cent. In the past these workers were granted temporary seasonal-worker status, but they now are allowed to settle with their families. There have been integration problems but the German-speaking population and the Portuguese are working on solutions. The construction of second homes, though, created a non-stop boom. This is resulting in a growing sense of unease in some mountain villages.

Switzerland was once the most well-known ski destination in the world. The country was also a leader in ski-resort infrastructure. But too many operators fighting over the same mountains resulted in bad financial situations. In the last 10 years Swiss winter resorts lost 1.5 million overnight stays because of the loss of a traditional foreign user base.

Switzerland was the most well-known ski destination in the world and a leader in resort infrastructure. But in the last 10 years, Swiss winter resorts have witnessed a decrease of 1.5 million overnight stays because of the loss of a traditional foreign-user base, and a steady decline in attendance since 2008 in spite of efforts to extend snowmaking facilities and renew lift infrastructure. In the 2014 winter season, 23.9 million skier visits were recorded, a 5.2-per-cent decline from the winter of 2012, and 11 per cent below the five-year average. The common theory is that Swiss resorts have not nurtured their sense of heritage as well as Austrian resorts have.

Character building

The two small ski resorts of Grimentz and Zinal in Switzerland's Val d'Anniviers valley are rimmed by mountain peaks more than 4,000 metres high. Famous for its old chalets, Grimentz seems to have changed little in the last 500 years.

"It's a mix of accessibility," Herrmann says. "Some of these villages are a little harder to get to especially if there's no transportation. Some communities have enforced their building codes much more strictly. Also the more ski-in, ski-out, the more convenient it is and the more investment went into these communities. It was probably easier to keep the original fabric of the community."

Grimentz is connected to the neighbouring resort of St. Luc and although investment has been limited, it was likely easier for these villages to maintain their character, unlike Crans-Montana and Verbier, two separate resorts in the Valais region of southeast Switzerland that were more accessible, which changed their landscape.

"(These resorts) were on the radar for international travellers and these communities had a much harder time keeping their original character," Herrmann says. "Even Aspen has the original character of a western town. Other (resorts) that were built in the '60s and '70s don't have any of that local character."

In spite of climate change, Hemmann believes that small resorts like Grimentz will survive with increased summer tourism.

"We have more and more visitors from global destinations; the U.S. and Canada," Herrmann says. "...In the last few years we had an increase of Canadian visitors to Switzerland. (From) the U.S., we have had six years of increases. Asia is also mostly summer (tourism). I believe that if these resorts find a way to attract summer visitors, they can survive."

In 2012 in an effort to protect the country's landscape, Swiss voters approved an initiative that enforces limits on the construction of second homes. The measures came into effect in 2016.

"This issue has been addressed especially in the Valais region," Herrmann explains. "We've already seen the impact of that with the way people build and buy real estate. You see some innovative forms of accommodation with hotels and houses that are rented out almost in a time-sharing way. This is something you didn't find in the Alps and it is now much more common."

In Austria where ski facilities were organized as early as 1906, operators continue to massively invest in what is perceived to be the most updated lift infrastructure in the industry, including an eight-seat chairlift with heated seats.

Most of the hotels in Austrian ski resorts are family owned and have a loyal customer base, composed of 12 per cent locals, 48 per cent Germans and 11 per cent Dutch. Even so, although skier visits to Austrian resorts reached 51.6 million in 2014-15 — an increase of 1.6 per cent from the winter of 2012-13 — the five-year average is on the decline. In the 2012-13 season, Switzerland had less than half the numbers of skier-days that France and Austria had. But Switzerland may have an advantage over other ski resorts.  

"The resorts in Switzerland are at a higher altitude than in Austria or Germany," Herrmann continues. "So within the Alps, with the exception of some resorts in France, Swiss resorts are in a better position for a change in climate."

The impact of demographic changes in the client base is also affecting Swiss ski-resort operators. What tourism officials are finding is that citizens of major European cities have to be re-acquainted with the pleasures of skiing.

"Two years ago we had 10 Chinese ski instructors in Switzerland for the entire winter season," Herrmann recounts. "This was to get (Mandarin or Cantonese)-speaking instructors into the resort for Chinese guests and get the word back to China. With this we hope to get new kinds of tourists to Switzerland."

Blueprint for expansion

The French ski industry is primarily domestically driven but is also witnessing a downward spiral in skier visits. Some of the major ski resorts were built in the 1960s and '70s. They were dismantled in the 1980s and lift operations were distributed among numerous interests that gave rise to the Compaigne des Alps, the world's largest ski operator. France is the only country in Europe with such a dominant operator that runs nearly all the major resorts. In France ski lifts are considered a public service and some of the operating companies are either partially owned or directly managed by municipalities.

About two million foreign skiers visit France every winter season and these figures seem to be growing. Even so, with 53.9 million skier visits in 2014-15 — which was down 2.5 per cent from the 2012-13 season — and last year is the second season in a row with a decrease in visits to French ski resorts.

Because both domestic and foreign customer bases are decreasing throughout Europe, it will be imperative to introduce a new clientele to skiing. One of the ways that the French ski industry is trying to accomplish this is the completion of the Les Arcs ski resort Mile 8 development. Mile 8 is an on- and off-slope entertainment hub in the heart of the ski area that is not limited by daylight hours for slope openings or by winter seasons because it switches to a summer mountain complex in the hotter months.

To combat competition from the expansion of big ski resorts in other parts of Europe, the citizens in the Swiss valley of Val d'Anniviers are working with their ski communities to co-operate with schools, public works and tourism.

"If you aren't an international chain you have practically no chance of building a hotel," a local mayor warned. "No bank will lend you money. In the whole of canton Valais, Zermatt is practically the only place where you have hotels that manage to survive in the mountains."  

Most Swiss ski resorts are not private companies.

"They don't necessarily have to make a profit," Herrmann says. "They have the local town or municipality to back them up in case of a loss. Of course, that guarantee also helps them get funding from local banks."

In some ways the effect of climate change has Swiss ski resorts ahead of their North American counterparts. In Switzerland the ability to secure bank credit for investment is limited by the altitude of the resort, so the thinking is that there will be a higher demand to flee hot cities for Switzerland in summer. 

"Climate change is not something we can escape," Herrmann says. "There's no choice but to adapt." 

Despite the uncertainty concerning expansion, the urge to develop ski resorts is as alluring in Switzerland as it is in B.C. In Switzerland there aren't many ski resorts where the infrastructure, hotels and restaurants are owned by one major company. Andermatt in the Canton of Uri is an exception.

"They took over the whole ski operation," Herrmann says. "It's very rare."

The new development will double the size of Andermatt. The expansion project by Egyptian property manager Samih Sawris will include a resort with up to six first-class hotels with 844 rooms and condos, 20 to 30 private villas, another 490 apartments, covered parking for 1,970 cars and a commercial and sports centre. There will be twice the number of ski slopes and 2,000 jobs will be created. Andermatt has a lot in common with Whistler: It is 1,440 metres above sea level, 1.5 hours from Zurich and two hours from Milan, and will include an 18-hole golf course and modernized ski facilities that will link with the neighbouring ski area of Sebrun — forming a 120-kilometre ski domain. Andermatt has also been granted an exemption from the Swiss legislation that restricts foreign property purchases.

Andermatt is stunningly beautiful, but terrain may not be enough as the ski industry faces the challenges of generating long-term growth. In Switzerland, it is thought that exiting baby boomers will not be replaced by future generations with the same enthusiasm for skiing. Innovation and customer relationship management is seen as the key. And if traditional European ski destinations want to compete, they must manage the quality of their infrastructure throughout the resort and provide exceptional customer service. Herrmann believes that the Swiss market demands convenience and those who figure out how to supply it will win.

Attracting new skiers

Ski instruction is where convenience and experience may be the most challenging — this industry must capture the attention of a new generation of skiers that is desperately needed to fill new resorts and renew the customer base. Herrmann also says the trend back to the roots of the sport is crucial. On the one hand skiing is about bigger resorts with faster runs and lifts with more vertical drop and capacity. But it's also about the entire experience that includes local traditions, gourmet dining on the slopes, all the amenities you need — and the next town close enough so that if you choose not to ski, you can do other things.

"We try to address the snow-lovers who look forward to horse-drawn carriages and fondue in a cozy mountain restaurant with the fireplace," Herrmann says.

In 10 to 20 years there may be giant Chinese ski resorts that attract a fast-growing international clientele. But Herrmann sees Switzerland's role in this differently.

"It's for people who want to take it a little slower and are more focused on the lifestyle than the number of runs they did," he says. "That's our niche and that's where we need to be."

In the face of these challenges and whether there will be enough snow in Swiss ski resorts in the future, Jurg Schmid, Director of Switzerland Tourism, the Swiss National Tourism Office is calling on the industry to think back to where it all began.  

"The light, the air and the magic of a snowy winter landscape is incredibly meditative. We need to put more emphasis on that," Schmid says.

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